ATLANTA — The aging curve doesn’t look kindly upon baseball players in their early-to-mid-30s, let alone 36 going on 37. But Jayson Werth has long considered himself an anomaly. He didn’t play more than 100 games in a season until he was 26. At 27, he missed a full season. He wasn’t an allstar until age 30. His best season was at 34.
Injuries again slowed Werth in 2015, rehab from shoulder surgery and a fractured wrist limiting him to 88 games and a .221 average. The Washington Nationals pursued top free agent outfielders this offseason but whiffed. Two seasons, including this one, and $42 million remain on Werth’s contract. The left fielder turns 37 on May 20. His teammates call him grandpa, but Werth hopes to prove he is an anomaly again.
“My dad always said, ‘You look good, you play good,’” Werth said last week. “And I feel like I look great so I got a chance.”
For Werth, it boils down to desire, and his hasn’t changed. He doesn’t consider the 2017 season the end.
“At some point, no one is going to want me,” he said. “That’s the reality. It happens to everybody. The trick is not letting it happen to you for as long as you can. . . . My will to work is still there. I still work hard. Until that day comes where I lose the will to want it or to work at it, I don’t see why I can’t keep playing.”
The Nationals will help Werth through the rigors of a 162-game season by giving him regular days off.
“It’s gotten tougher to go night [game] to day [game] as I’ve gotten older,” Werth said. “It just comes down to production at the end of the day. If you can produce, age is just a number. Really. Obviously, you’re going to run faster when you’re younger and you’re going to throw harder when you’re younger. But look at some of those guys later in their careers, they become better hitters, you get more reps.”
Despite a broken wrist in 2012, a hamstring strain in 2013 and a 2014 shoulder injury that needed offseason surgery, that threeseason stretch — from ages 33 to 35 — was among the best of Werth’s career. Over 357 games, he hit .303 with 46 home runs and an .873 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
Other than the hamstring strain, Werth’s injuries over the past four years have been caused by impact: a snapped wrist diving for a ball in 2012, a shoulder injury sustained jumping into the outfield wall in 2014 and a hit-by-pitch-that fractured his wrist again in 2015. Werth said his right shoulder and left wrist — despite a metal plate, screws and pins — are healthy.
“I’m still bouncing back from injury, which I think is a good sign,” he said. “I think as you get older you don’t bounce back. I don’t know. People can count me out as much as they want, but I’m not there yet.”
Few players rival Werth’s dedication to his body. He has his own medical specialists. He trains heavily. He is careful about what he eats. At Werth’s urging, the Nationals upgraded the food and medical care for players.
“I’ve been ahead of the curve in that respect,” Werth said. “Baseball is still kind of in the dark ages on that, on how teams take care of players. I think I’ve been the anomaly in that regard. I’ve been doing my own food for seven years.”
By that, Werth, who is gluten-free, means he brings his own food, often prepared by a cook, to the stadium. Even on the road, Werth has food shipped.
“You can’t rely on the teams to be your nutritionist,” he said. “At this stage of the game, I really can’t afford to not [provide my own food]. I’ve always looked at it as money well spent. I’m investing in myself and in my future. Hopefully it pays off in the end.”
“It takes a lot of hard work, commitment and discipline to stay productive at that age,” said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, 31. “Everything is twice as hard, if not more, than it was at 27. It just shows you what kind of person he is and how hard he works. It’s a never-ending dedication.”
In spring training, Werth talked to Manager Dusty Baker and first base coach Davey Lopes about playing as they aged. Werth asked Lopes how he stole 47 bases in 1985 at 40. Lopes, now 70, bristled, telling Werth age is just a number. Werth can look to his family — his grandfather Dick Schofield played in the majors until he was 36 — and his past teammates for examples.
One of Werth’s favorite teammates was Raul Ibanez, who played until he was 42, albeit as a bench player near the end. Werth played with Steve Finley in 2004 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the veteran outfielder hit 36 home runs at 39. A year later, the Dodgers signed 37-year-old Jeff Kent and Werth, then 26, thought Kent was too old to play. Kent finished with a .289 average, 29 home runs, 105 RBI and an all-star selection.
“He posted up every day, he played his [rear] off, he was good, smart,” Werth said. “Where he lacked in maybe quickness and speed that he once had, he made it all up in smarts and know-how and instincts. I remember being so impressed with this guy. He was still at the top of his game. I’ve always kind of held that close and kept that in my pocket. And now I’m here.”
Werth will need those smarts, especially in left field, where he struggled to adjust last season. “It’s just a matter of playing,” he said. Despite losing his old firststep quickness, Werth said once he gets up to speed, “I still feel like I can run a little bit.” But as he said this, Werth stopped himself. He knows his body can’t do what it once could.
“He’s a grandpa almost now,” said starter Max Scherzer, 31, who teases Werth often. “It’s only a matter of time before he starts complaining about his back or something. He seems to be responding really well to spring and has bounce in his step. Even at 37, hopefully he goes out there and has a huge year.”